ANCHORAGE - Alaska Airlines on Thursday unveiled the first cargo-passenger plane in a new fleet that's expected to enhance service.
The modified "combi" Boeing 737-400 is part of the Seattle-based company's $100 million plan to upgrade its cargo operations in a state with a limited road system between far-flung communities. Airline officials said the fleet will primarily focus on Alaska aside from some Seattle flights.
"This is about our recommitment parts of the state," Bill MacKay, the airline's senior vice president for Alaska, said of the upgrades launched by an all-cargo freighter last summer.
The first of four combination planes is scheduled to be begin service Friday from Anchorage to the communities of Nome,
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Kotzebue, Barrow and Fairbanks as well as the industrial outpost of Deadhorse near Prudhoe Bay.
The combis are designed to carry more cargo and have more comfortable passenger cabins than the combi 737-200s the new planes are replacing.
A second 737-400 is expected to arrive in Alaska in time for a Sunday flight. Two others are scheduled to arrive this spring, MacKay said.
Pemco World Air Services in Dothan, Ala., converted the new combis from all-passenger aircraft that joined the Alaska Airlines fleet in 1992. The airliner also has options with Pemco to convert a second freighter and fifth combi aircraft, but no decision on that has been made, MacKay said.
The new fleet will have no effect on all-passenger aircraft with flights to and from Alaska, officials said.
The smaller combi 737-200s, which will be phased out in March, are adjustable, allowing the number of passenger seats and the cargo area to be fitted to each flight. The planes have been used for decades.
But consistent cargo capacity can't be accomplished with the planes, and freight is the often the tradeoff when passenger needs demand it, said Steve Carlisle, the airline's director of the cargo division in Alaska. He said the planes' flexibility has become a more pronounced challenge with growing freight needs in Alaska's outlying areas.
Barges deliver some goods to remote communities in warmer months, but there is a huge year-round demand for air freight transportation for cargo ranging from seafood and groceries to construction materials and North Slope oil supplies.
"This plane allows us to keep pace with that growth," Carlisle said.
The new fleet guarantees cargo space, Carlisle said during a media tour of the plane. The front half of the aircraft can accommodate four cargo pallets and the other half has all-leather seating for 72 passengers and such features as more leg room and larger overhead carryon bins.
Altogether the new combis and all-cargo freighter will provide about 20 percent more cargo and passenger capacity, officials said.
"This is really a great thing for the state of Alaska," Carlisle said. "The new combi planes will really be a lifeline for Alaska communities."